Lent 3C: “What Did I Do?” Hospital Gowns, Fig Trees, and the Love of God
By: The Rev. Anna Tew
He was very sick, and he was very sad. Larry* had had his legs amputated due to blood flow and complications with diabetes. This had happened just days before I met him. Worse yet, he was alone. He was homeless with no family to speak of. His thin body shook with grief. Larry’s tears fell down his cheeks and stained his hospital gown as he managed to get the words out: “I just don’t know why God is doing this to me, Pastor. I just don’t know what I did to deserve this. I must have sinned real bad. Oh, Lord, I must have.”
I met Larry during my time as a hospital chaplain. For two years, I had the privilege of serving at an inner city hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. While serving in that role, I constantly met people who were sad, angry, sick, and trying to make sense of what had happened to them or to their family members. Often, they wondered if it might be something that they did — God’s way of punishing them for their sin.
Though I lived a much less brutal life than many of my patients or the inhabitants of Israel who were listening to Jesus in our Gospel passage, I was faced with mortality every day as a hospital chaplain. I, like them, saw suffering every day and had to make sense of it — and that also caused me to think about my own mortality. Every day, my patients and their families did the same thing, and often concluded, like the Israelites in the Gospel passage, that God must be punishing those who suffer.
I never could blame them for thinking that way. Often when I was growing up, people would place a great emphasis on our own actions, pointing to stories such as Joshua 7, where sin in Israel’s camp leads to their defeat. Lest we think these stories only happen in the Old Testament, we would also point to Acts 5, where, as the story goes, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for lying to the apostles about money. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples ask him about the man born blind — is he blind, they asked, because of his own sin or the sin of his parents? As in ancient Israel, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that human suffering is due to God’s punishment for our sin. It’s even easy to read today’s Gospel passage that way, since Jesus says that the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit is cut down.
Looking a bit closer, we see that Jesus’ questioners were also likely trying to get him riled up. “See what Pilate is doing to us?” they say. Surely, because people are punished for their sins, God will bring God’s wrath down on the Romans too! But, as usual, Jesus turns things back on them. Yes, he says, sin causes death. Violence causes death. Domination and the desire for revenge cause death. And there they go, tumbling down along the same path — likely wanting revenge for what happened to their countrymen.
Jesus reminds us of the urgency of repentance. He reminds them that violence and revenge and domination are not the way — that they lead to death, not because God strikes down sinners, but because we strike down each other. Because the world is broken. Because death has entered the world and sooner or later, it gets to all of us, regardless of our actions.
For his part, Jesus is also on his way to death in Jerusalem in this story. Soon, Jesus’
blood will also be shed by the Romans. He knows that. Soon, he will face death on the cross. After that, he and his followers will call them to step into the promise of his own resurrection — where sin and fear and violence no longer have the last word.
That day at the hospital, I looked into Larry’s eyes as he wept, thinking that God was punishing him for sins he couldn’t remember. “Larry,” I said gently, using the words that a dear colleague had often used to comfort patients, “You are beloved. God is not punishing you. If God punished people this way, the hospital wouldn’t be able to hold all the people who would be here. We have all sinned. I know you are hurting. I don’t know why this has happened to you, but God loves you, Larry. God weeps with you. God isn’t punishing you. God is here to hold you.”
His tears flowed anew, but now they were tears of relief. He told me that made sense. And we went on to talk about the ways in which he needed to forgive others and especially himself. Tears — the good kind — continued to fall. Most of them were Larry’s. Some of them were mine.
Sooner or later, we all have to come to terms with human suffering, disease, and violence. Lent calls us to come to terms with our mortality every year in the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” We all have to deal with death. And when we do, we have a choice. We can choose a theology of reward and punishment, thinking that God is just like us — getting angry and doing violence when God is displeased — or we can choose the Gospel. The Gospel is that we are all broken, we have all sinned, and that we all suffer, but that God has the final word, and the final word is resurrection. The Gospel is that rather than causing our suffering, God holds us when we suffer. That even God suffered on the cross and ultimately defeated death. The Gospel, through Christ, is that God does not destroy life — God restores it.
As you think about your own mortality during this season of Lent, may you rest in our God who forgives, heals, restores, and makes all things new. Amen.
*Name has been changed to protect patient privacy.
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30 year old Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She was born and raised a Southerner and is known for her frequent use of the word “y’all” despite living in New England. She received her Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011 and served as a United Methodist pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, for two years before becoming a Lutheran. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors, reading theology (yes really), and keeping up with politics and pop culture (especially music).